A year ago, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision that struck down Canada’s antiquated prostitution laws for endangering sex workers far above “the aims of the law”. It is with a cruel irony that the Conservatives’ new prostitution laws came into effect on the 25th anniversary of the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, particularly as the new laws will only put sex workers (especially women) at further risk of violence and unsafe conditions.
Sex work in Canada and elsewhere has long been a dangerous and risky enterprise largely due to the laws that criminalize it, and the reality of social inequality experienced by many who do this work. For example, the majority of the 49 women murdered by notorious serial killer Robert Pickton were aboriginal sex workers. While crafting Canada’s new sex worker laws, the federal government has also been assailed for its lack of response to the large number of aboriginal women who have been murdered or gone missing, many of whom are sex workers.
Because of the unsafe conditions in which sex workers found themselves, a group of them decided to launch a challenge to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Formally speaking, prostitution is not illegal in Canada. However, the complainants stated that laws limiting how sex work is conducted infringed their rights to life, liberty, and security of the person. They successfully argued that the laws against sex work, ostensibly to limit a public nuisance, have had an extremely negative effect on the ability of sex workers, plying a legal trade, to ensure any degree of safety in their respective workplaces.
From criminalizing living off the avails of prostitution (which, for example, limits the ability to lawfully hire bodyguards), to the prohibition of solicitation in public (which pushes sex work into the dark and dangerous corridors of the nation’s cities), the laws formerly on the books made sex work and sex workers fundamentally vulnerable and unsafe. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decided that the negative effects of the laws were grossly disproportionate to the aim of the laws. On Dec. 20, 2013, the SCC struck down all three prostitution-related offences in the criminal code: living off the avails of prostitution, soliciting in public, and keeping a brothel.
Despite the SCC ruling, the Harper Conservatives have ignored this decision and enacted new laws that criminalize the client, also referred to as the “john”, based on the so-called Nordic model. As such, the government has, in effect, made matters worse for sex workers.
The Nordic Model and criminalization
Similar to Canada's previous prostitution laws, the Nordic Model aims to criminalize the purchase of sex and associated third parties such as managers, brothels, and “living on the avails of prostitution”. In 1999, Sweden criminalized the purchase of sex with the aim to eliminate prostitution by ending demand. While criminalizing the purchase of sex and third-party profiteers, instead of the sex workers themselves, the Nordic model continues to put sex workers at risk.
Maggie's, a Toronto-based sex workers’ advocacy group, explains that the criminalization of sex work, whether it be of the sex worker or the purchaser, has led sex workers into increasingly dangerous situations due to a resulting lack of options for security and safety screening. Under criminalization models, sex workers have argued that by having to work in isolated and insecure spaces, they have been increasingly susceptible to violence. Under the Nordic model that criminalizes the purchase of sex, sex workers who work on the streets are forced to jump into cars before being able to memorize a licence plate number, screen the client, and negotiate the terms of work because the client is afraid of being criminalized. Additionally, many of the assaults on sex workers go unreported due to police harassment or sex workers being afraid to report their “johns” because of the fear of being called as witness, which could result in the ruin of their reputation with other clients.
Despite the stated intentions of the Nordic model, sex work has not been reduced or eliminated by these policies in the Nordic countries. Many sex workers continue to engage in this work because it is their only means of survival, with little opportunity of finding a stable well-paying job elsewhere.
Is legalization the solution?
One option that has been proposed, within the confines of the current economic system, is the outright legalization of prostitution. The Dutch model, for instance, has advocated for the legalization of prostitution with the major aim of reducing risks and harm to sex workers. Through government regulation, it can dictate where, and how, sex work is sold. Proponents of legalization have highlighted Nevada's brothels (the only place in the U.S. where sex work is legalized) as an example that could improve the safety of workers through access to regular and accessible STI/STD testing and condoms. However, sex workers at the brothels in Nevada have stated concerns regarding a lack of self-determination as the conditions of their work are dictated by management. Sex workers in Nevada have reported not being able to turn down clients and have complained that a significant portion of their earning goes towards management. Maggie's has also highlighted an additional concern with legalization about people without citizenship or status and how government institutions could further their isolation and vulnerabilities.
While initially, legalization of sex work appears to be a step forward in improving the health and safety of sex workers, this model still allows for the exploitation of sex workers and leaves certain layers particularly vulnerable. The Dutch model simply takes sex work out of the informal sector, and turns it into just another for-profit capitalist enterprise with the associated subordination in the workplace and exploitation by the bosses.
Most importantly, it does not deal with the question of providing an alternative, and way out, for sex workers who only engage in sex work because it is the only alternative open to them for providing themselves, and their families, with a living.
There can be no genuine liberation of sex workers in capitalist society, which is based on the oppression and exploitation of the majority for the profit of the few. Lenin explained that under capitalism, sex workers are oppressed by the system of private property which denies them, and all workers, a fair share of the collectively produced wealth of society, by the moral hypocrisy of the ruling class who stigmatize and scapegoat sex workers, and who, while constantly caught up in their own scandals, perpetuate the economic and social conditions that drive many women to sex work in the first place.
In this context, the “moral” argument that sex work should immediately be abolished is sanctimonious nonsense and only further stigmatizes some of society’s most marginalized women. However, the argument that sex work is a liberatory choice and should therefore be completely normalized in the current society is also severely flawed. There can be no possibility of abolishing sex work, or of sex work being a real “choice”, until women achieve economic equality. In turn, social and economic equality of women is not possible under capitalist society.
What are the material conditions that lead people to view sex work as the best available option to them? If women did not have to worry about feeding their children, affording the skyrocketing costs of child-care, paying the rent and bills, or if there were plenty of good-paying jobs with benefits, would they choose this kind of work? Marxists do not approach sex work from the moral viewpoint of capitalist society. If people — men, women, or anyone else — genuinely enjoy this work, there is nothing wrong with this. We only demand that this choice be free from economic and social compulsion.
Socialists must fight for every reform possible that addresses the need for immediate protection of sex workers against violence and discrimination. Decriminalization would be a step forward that would advance sex workers’ ability to organize to improve their working conditions and the Marxists fully advocate for this. However, social reforms can only achieve so much under this system.
Capitalism cannot provide the conditions that can, once and for all, lay the ground for genuine equality between men and women and end the exploitative nature of sex-work and its associated risks. These include: a universal childcare program, expanded health care, free post-secondary education with living grants, equal pay for equal work, affordable housing, a guaranteed minimum wage of at least two-thirds of the national average, a 32-hour work week, and full employment for all. Such policies directly contradict the profit motive of the capitalist system, which is now in its deepest crisis and has only austerity to offer for generations to come.
Ultimately, such reforms can only be achieved through a democratically planned and socialist economy, which would take the massive wealth produced by the working class and put it to public good; effectively eliminating the material conditions (such as poverty, lack of good jobs, high cost of living, etc.) that lead many people to sell sex. These same conditions force us to compete with each other and distorts human relationships, breeding sexism, racism, and all the forms of discrimination which the ruling class has long utilized to keep us from uniting against our common oppressor. These discriminatory views, combined with the frustration and powerlessness felt by increasing numbers of people, are compounded in capitalist society to leave women and sex-workers vulnerable to violent attacks.
When the dehumanizing competition for material goods is done away with, people will start to see each as equals and the harmful societal views that contribute to violence against women and sex-workers would eventually melt away. Sex work, if it exists at all, would look much different and lose its exploitative nature.
Only a clear socialist program, which puts the resources and wealth of society under democratic public ownership of the working class, can achieve this aim. A socialist system has the potential for people to realize genuinely fulfilling sexual and human relationships. Sex workers, women, LGBTQ, youth, activists, and all workers across racial and ethnic lines, must link this struggle to the broader fight against capitalism and for socialism — for a society where we can all have the opportunity to live up to our full humanity.